By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Georgia Tech Women’s Basketball Coach MaChelle Joseph smiled widely on Tuesday afternoon, as she discussed her weekend plans.
“It’s hard to believe it’s that time of the year again,” she said, with a laugh. “We’re starting another season but I’m very excited to get tipped off on Friday night at 5:30.”
It’s doubtful that the smile is going to be on Joseph’s face on Friday night at 5:30 — it’ll be replaced by her intense game face until around 7:30 — and probably even less likely anything resembling a smile will be on the faces of the Samford University Bulldogs, against whom the Yellow Jackets open their 2016-17 season at McCamish Pavilion.
GT Women’s Basketball has been that good in season- and home-openers in the Joseph Era, going 12-1 in each (the only loss came in 2012-13, in the inaugural game at McCamish, against No. 20/16 Tennessee, which would win the SEC and reach the Elite Eight).
The 2016-17 season offers similar promise even though this year’s team has a new look.
Joseph and her staff have worked in six new faces, four of them freshmen (6-1 Italian guard Francesca Pan, 6-0 North Carolina guard Chanin Scott, 5-7 Marietta, Ga. guard Zutorya Cook and 6-4 Senegalese center Anne Francoise Diouf), a sophomore (5-9 Ohio State transfer Kaylan Pugh, who ideally will be eligible in early December) and 5-2 Graduate Student guard Cha’Ron Sweeney. It’s actually seven new faces if you count 6-2 Nigerian redshirt junior transfer Elo Edeferioka, who sat out last year after transferring.
The new faces join returning starters, 5-9 Italian junior sharpshooting guard Antonia Peresson, versatile 6-3 senior Serbian forward Katarina Vuckovic, who can play all five positions on both ends of the floor, 5-5 junior New York point Imani Tilford and 5-11 junior New Jersey forward Zaire O’Neil, who is back to 100 percent following a knee injury that hindered her all last season. A trio of 6-3 forwards, junior Simi Avram, from Romania, and sophomores Chelsea Guimaraes from Portugal and Martine Fortune from Philadelphia, return to bolster the team’s depth.
Joseph is excited in what she’s seen on the court and with their chemistry.
“I think it’s interesting, in some ways amazing, that you can have players from seven different countries come together and have such a mutual respect and admiration for each other,” said Joseph, who brings a 252-162 record into ‘16-17. “I don’t know that I’ve ever had a team that likes each other as much as this team does. To see so much diversity come together, it’s a beautiful thing.
“One of our challenges early on is to find those people that will confront each other on the court because you have to have some kind of leadership within the group,” she added. “I told them, ‘We’re a very good team now. When this team becomes THEIR team it’ll be a great team.’”
They certainly have no trouble confronting opposing players. In scrimmages against the all-men Gold Squad and in a couple of preseason closed scrimmages, the team was tenacious defensively. Joseph feels they’re rarin’ to go on.
“I definitely think they are,” she said. “This team has really bought into our system. We’re playing a little bit different in our presses, in our zone traps, we’re able to extend our defense a lot more than we’ve been able to the last three years and in our man defense we’ve been able to get a lot more aggressive and do a lot of different things. One of the things that has stood out to me is how physical we are and how tremendous the pressure we’re able to put on another team defensively.”
Both Samford and Alabama State, which the Jackets play on Sunday (a 2 p.m. tip at McCamish) present very good tests for the Yellow Jackets. While the Jackets are a combined 8-0 against the schools (3-0 vs. Samford, 5-0 vs. Alabama State), both schools are coming off superb seasons, and, predicated by their defense, are predicted to do big things within their conference again.
The Bulldogs, picked third in the Southern Conference in preseason polls, are coming off a 20-11 season (11-3 in conference play). Last season they were the best defensive team in the SoCon in scoring (50.2 points per game), and field goal percentage (35.7) and were second in three-point field goal percentage (26.6) and scoring margin (plus-5.3).
This is a different Samford team than the Jackets beat 66-55 last Dec. 13 at McCamish and is much better than the one that finished last in the conference in scoring (55.5 ppg). The difference-maker is 5-10 redshirt junior guard Hannah Nichols, a Preseason All-Southern Conference performer, who redshirted last season. Nichols, Second-Team All-Conference two seasons ago and 2013-14 SoCon Freshman of the Year, ranks seventh all-time in school history in three-point field goals made (133).
Alabama State presents a similarly difficult challenge on Sunday on a short turnaround. ASU is back-to-back SWAC Champion and is coming off a 19-12 (14-4) season, which saw them finish fourth in scoring (62.8 ppg), second in scoring defense (60.0), scoring margin (plus-2.8), opposing field goal percentage (35.8), opposing three-point field goal percentage (25.5), and first in blocks and second in assists. They feature a pair of Preseason All-SWAC performers, including 5-10 senior forward Britney Wright, the Preseason SWAC Player of the Year and returning All-SWAC first-teamer and SWAC Tournament MVP, and fellow 5-10 senior G/F Daniele Ewert, an All-SWAC Second Teamer. The Jackets held both in check last season, limiting Wright to three points on 1-for-10 shooting and seven rebounds over 22 minutes in their 80-54 walloping of the Lady Hornets on Nov. 24 at McCamish. Wright did not play.
Joseph hopes for a similar defensive nightmare for both opponents this weekend, taking advantage of a roster that may be her deepest since the Sweet 16 team of 2011-12 which will allow her to play as many as nine or ten and implement her signature defensive pressure even more aggressively than usual.
“We came into the season wanting to play multiple defenses and press and extend our defense so we could play more people,” she said. “Chanin Scott, for instance, she’s one of those players that you want to play 94 feet because she’ll just get out and run. She’s the most athletic player I’ve ever coached at Georgia Tech so once she learns the system and she learns how to play at this level I think she could earn more and more minutes and really impact our defense.
“I believe, as the season progresses, Elo Edeferioka will be very similar to that,” she added. “She’s doing a great job on the boards right now. She’s a little rusty offensively from sitting out a year so I think as she gets game experience under her belt and gets back into game shape we can see a lot of progression from her from the start of the season to the ACC season.”
Offensively, the Jackets will look to play inside-out, getting the ball into the hands of O’Neil, who is now healthy and has improved on the devastating form she showed as a freshman. Looming at the three-point line are Peresson, the Jackets’ top three-point shooter, and her countryman, long-time friend and teammate Pan.
“I think we have an opportunity to have three, maybe four players in double figures each night,” Joseph said. “I’m very excited about the play of Zaire O’Neil coming off that injury last year, she was never at 100 percent. This year, without a doubt, she’s going to be, in my opinion, one of the top 10 players in the ACC by the end of the year.
“We’ve had some really good play out of Antonia Peresson. She’s shooting about 50 or 60 percent from the three-point line, averaging about four threes made a game,” she continued. “We’ve also had some tremendous play on the perimeter from Francesca Pan. I think she’s one of the top five freshmen in the ACC. She’s been in basically double-figures every game we’ve played. She can score in three different ways — from the three-point line, attacking the rim and with the midrange game. She’s been a force on both ends.”
With a super-versatile, super-deep and already super-cohesive roster, plus the added incentive of being picked ninth in the ACC Preseason poll (eighth by the coaches) and being left entirely off the Preseason All-ACC team, Joseph feels strongly that the Jackets will be the surprise of the ACC.
“They’ve surprised ME so I know we’re going to surprise people,” she said. “We have so many new faces, so many new players. I think a lot of people picked us ninth because last year we were able to win 20 games and go 8-8 with a limited roster and this year the fact that we have the talent and the depth that we have, I think we’re going to surprise some people.”